As we move towards spring, so the birds are beginning to move north from their winter homes. We in the northern states are still locked solid in snow and ice and are wondering when there will be enough open water and bare ground to welcome the migrants. Now might be a good time for a history lesson related to the migration season.
It was 101 years ago that concerned citizens convinced the government that a law was needed to protect all the songbirds that spend any time in the U.S. This was partly due to the realization that ‘market hunting’ of birds for their feathers was rapidly depleting whole populations of wading and water birds.
This Great Egret is displaying the feathers that hunters were after for the millinery trade in the early 1900s.
The tragic story of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon was fresh in the people’s minds. This bird once numbered in the millions and darkened the skies when moving from place to place. They were shot from the sky for sport and human consumption in equally staggering numbers. People suddenly realized that humans can ultimately have a horrifying impact on the natural world and that there needed to be some form of control over this behavior.
In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) was instituted and marked the beginning of bird conservation in this country. The law made it illegal to kill, trap or sell (including purchase or barter) any migratory bird, or their parts, nests or eggs. Canada and Mexico are part of this agreement too, so the entire North American continent is covered. Later Japan and Russia joined the agreement (some of ‘our’ birds do migrate to those countries). In 1972 eagles and hawks were added to the list of protected species. It is possible to get a Federal Permit to do research which might involve taking of the birds, their feathers or their eggs and in 1962 Native Americans were given the right to possess certain feathers related to traditional religious practices.
Audubon painting of Passenger Pigeons which were declared extinct in the wild in 1914
When the Act was put in place the main threats to birds from humans were guns, but things have changed drastically in the last 100 years and today the threats are so much greater. In our industrialization we have added power lines, skyscrapers, wind generators and toxic oil or chemically laden open pits related to mining. When birds die after encountering on these it is called an “incidental take”, meaning the death occurred due to activities that are otherwise considered lawful.
Toxic wastewater from mining or oil industries attract and kill countless birds.
Many oil and electric companies have worked with environmental and wildlife advocacy groups to mitigate the threat to birds by their operations. They know that bad publicity is not good for their business, and there is also the real possibility of enforcement of the law, including financial penalties in egregious cases. It is hoped that rather than face penalties, companies will see the MBTA as an incentive to implement best practices in the first place.
In 2017 there was a move in Congress to pass a bill that would amend the MTBA reducing regulations and penalties for industries that constitute a serious threat to birds. Critics claimed that the law was too vague and could include birds killed by home windows and cars. The President of American Bird Conservancy disputed this claim saying. “When it comes to the MBTA, we’re concerned about major bird traps — threats like oil pits, wind turbines next to eagle nests, and communication towers in bird migration hot spots.” If the law is changed the new rules would mean that companies like BP would never be liable for killing almost a million birds during the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
If we truly love birds and invest in bird feeding, as a way of ensuring their continued existence, then we have to be aware of other threats in the environment and how we can be involved in bird protection.
By Kate Crowley